Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Interview: Ben Weasel

I make no secret of the fact I idolise Ben Weasel. While 'idol' is a heavy word, many of my formative teenage years were played out to Ben's music. While not just an amazing, prolific musician, he's also an astute mind and a fantastic writer (in fact I've slowly becoming cognisant of the fact my writing style is somewhat similar to his and have for sometime been unwittingly aping his prose). Having spent hours pouring over his music, lyrics, and devouring his two books Like Hell and Punk Is A Four Letter Word, I developed a fascination with his larger-than-life personality. While at times he seemed like a obstinate jerk, in a lot of ways I identified with his seige mentality in the face of the world he saw as a confederacy of dunces in union against him.

While Ben would probably care to disagree with some of my points about his life, I don't claim to know him personally and therefore wouldn't quibble with him. I'm simply stating that during my heady teenage years as I grappled with my hormones and hang-ups, I took a lot from his music, for which I'm very fond of him.

Oh yeah, he also knows how to write an A1, top-shelf pop song.

Which brings me to my next point, next month he'll be teaming up with his longtime offsider Danny Vapid for two shows at Reggie's Rock Club in Chicago, Illinois, in which they'll play Screeching Weasel's gem of an album My Brain Hurts in its entirety. While I'm stuck here some 15,000kms away, I thought the next best thing was to hit Ben up for an e-mail interview. I was pleasantly surprised when he promptly replied, agreeing to let me pick his brain, even insisting that I e-mail him with any follow up questions. The results are below.

Wrecked Kids: In August you're playing two shows in which you're playing My Brain Hurts in its entirety with Danny Vapid, is this the first step in reforming Screeching Weasel? Surely given the overwhelming popularity of the shows it's crossed your mind.

BW: No, and it hasn't remotely crossed my mind. I have way more fun and make way more money playing as Ben Weasel. Vapid suggested the MBH thing a while back and I thought it sounded like it could be fun. But I'm not going to be doing a band again. Screeching Weasel wasn't very much fun for me for most of the time I was doing it. I don't see any reason to drag that name out again. What I'm doing now is the closest thing you're going to see to Screeching Weasel again. And it's probably a lot closer than if I re-formed a band I don't want to be in with people I don't want to work with anymore.

WK: You mentioned on your radio show that you've re-worked some old Riverdales demos and re-recorded them for the the re-release of Phase Three. Has that stoked the fires to reform that band?

BW: No. We have talked about maybe doing a show this winter but I kind of doubt it'll happen, because it would entail a lot of work for me to get back up to speed on guitar and I have a lot of other stuff on my plate. The Riverdales was a fun band and I enjoy playing but I am way out of practice. I hope we can do it eventually but it's probably not going to happen real soon.

WK: In the past you've expressed your reticence to play live shows and tour, has that attitude changed? Can we expect something more than a sporadic show or two from you in the future?

BW: Probably not. I like playing Reggie's in Chicago. It's a good sized club for me and they treat me well down there. They've got great food too. I'm 2 1/2 hours away so it's quick and easy to get down there and back from Madison. I hate touring. I don't see myself starting again. I've looked into one-offs out of town but it's really not very easy to do. I either have to fly a bunch of guys in with me, ensuring I won't make any money, or try to find a kick ass band in whatever town I'm playing. Everybody thinks their band can do it but most bands aren't very good. Even if I could find somebody I'd have to arrive a few days early to rehearse. It's a big, expensive pain in the ass, which is why people tour instead. So I'm better off just going down to Reggie's a few times a year until people decide they don't want to see me play anymore. Then I can start looking into careers in the dishwashing or fast food service industries.

WK: Do you even consider yourself a professional musician anymore? Do you work outside of music to help pay your bills?

BW: Yeah I'm still a musician. I support myself by making music. I make a little money from the radio thing too, and when the books are in print I make a little from writing, but mostly it's royalties, merch, publishing, licensing, and now gigs. The money's not as good as it used to be but I can pay the bills. Sometimes I think about getting a job but I can't really do anything and I'm too busy with creative stuff and, mostly, with all the administrative and bookkeeping crap it entails. Not having a manager means there's a ton of stupid, annoying, time-consuming work I have to do. If I had a job I don't see how I could keep up with the everything else. I can barely keep on top of it working 6-8 hour days as is. I can't really save any money, which kind of sucks at my age, but then I don't have to answer to anybody and when I go to work it's mostly people telling me how much they like my work and what it means to them. It's pretty incredible to be able to do this for a living. Going into work and having people shake your hand and pat you on the back is pretty nice. Then you go get up on a stage and sing some of your songs and people give you money for it. It's insane and wonderful.

WK: Would it be safe to say you were driven out of the punk rock "scene" in the late 90s? That was the impression i got from your semi-autobiographical novel, 'Like Hell'.

BW: No, not at all. It was a self-imposed exile. I hated the punk scene and I'd had my fill. I still do hate it, as I learned the hard way last year. I mean the musicians. They are almost exclusively a bunch of whiny, petty, insecure crybabies who act like jagoffs because they're scared they won't become famous, or people won't think they're cool, or whatever it is they're worried about. Life's too short. The pop punk scene would be terrific if it weren't for all the musicians.

WK: Has your attitude to punk rock audiences changed since witnessing the "scene" that's emerged around the Insubordination Records pop punk festival and the Knock Knock Records pop punk message board.?

BW: I think for a while now audiences have been way better than they were in the 80s and 90s. By and large anyway. There seem to be fewer fights and less boneheads. In the early 90s there wasn't really any pop punk scene so if a pop punk band played a show, the punks showed up, and too many of them were drunken, violent halfwits. Now there is more of a cohesive pop punk scene, and I think the kind of people who tend to want to bring stupidity to shows just aren't interested in pop punk bands for the most part. Which is really nice. The pop punkers can be obnoxious in their own way but they tend to be self-effacing wimps who aren't as interested in projecting a dumb image so there aren't a lot of dick-swinging tough guy antics. And they tend to stick to beer and pot so there's not too much in the way of heroin or cocaine drama either.

WK: Concerning this new generation of pop punk bands, it's certainly a scene constituted of people who grew up idolizing bands like Screeching Weasel, the Queers and the Mr T Experience. How do you handle that idolatry?

BW: Quite happily for the most part. It's really cool to find out that your stuff is still relevant to younger musicians. The only problems I ever have are with people who are so obsessed that they feel they have to alienate you and be a prick to you. It's almost as though they're embarrassed about being so into the music you make. It's a very strange phenomenon but it's happened to me a couple of times recently with a couple of the better known pop punk bands. It's really disappointing, but most people are totally cool. The fans anyway. Again, the biggest dicks tend to be the people in bands. Though plenty of them are good people too.
WK: Your last record, These Ones Are Bitter, was a lot more mellow musically and lyrically than than some of your past records. Are you a more settled and stable person? Have you achieved domestic bliss?

BW: I disagree with that characterization of the record but yeah, I achieved domestic bliss five years ago when I got married. I've been settled and stable for a long time. I've always been an old man in a young man's body. It's nice that my chronological age is starting to catch up with my mental age.

WK: The sound of your last record, what influenced you? It seems like less of a punk rock record and more of a hard rock record. A lot was made of members of Alkaline Trio and the All-American Rejects playing on the album, did those bands influence the sound?

BW: Except to the extent that some of the members of those bands played on the record, I don't think so. My influence was primarily old bubblegum pop songs - stuff like the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Co., That was some of the first rock and roll I ever listened to fanatically. I think a lot of the reason I sing the way I do comes from listening to Joey Levine on those old records over and over. When I was working on tightening up the songs and finishing lyrics I thought a lot about the music I grew up on and I threw a couple of lines into two of the songs referring to that. One was a Ted Nugent reference and there's a reference to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida too. The lead in Got My Number is essentially the first half of what I remember as a recurring keyboard part in Do Ya Think I'm Sexy by Rod Stewart. Which I didn't realize until I'd written the song, but I think I was letting a lot of the stuff I grew up listening to or hearing on the radio show up in little ways in the songs, because the album is really about two characters and they're meant to be around my age.

Originally I started writing the stuff for a band I did called Sweet Black and Blue. I had been working on songs for an album for a while but I decided to put it to the side. It was good but I felt like it was kind of depressing. It was depressing me. It worked fine but it wasn't much fun. So I decided to try to write a song without trying to do anything but write a great song the way I naturally write. That was Let Freedom Ring, and the songs just started coming after that. The instrumental section is obviously heavily indebted to the style of the Fastbacks but the tune itself is 100% me. Nobody else would've written that song like that. A couple of them were older - In A Few Days and a different version of In A Bad Place - but I really started writing with the intent to get back to doing what I do best in the fall of 2004. Then after that band split up I wrote a bunch more. I was trying to stick to my strengths instead of consciously avoiding some of the more common things I do in writing because I think for a few years prior to that, that is what I'd been doing - trying to write stuff that didn't sound quite as much like me. That was a dumb idea. People want to hear me doing what I do best, and it's more fun for me. But it's also a lot of work. I get very aggravated with musicians and songwriters who don't understand that writing a great, simple pop song is a hell of a lot harder than writing the kind of pretentious, arty crap that makes snobs take notice, like it's something important and artistic. Anyway, the funny thing is that in trying to write more like me I think I ended up doing a lot more things I normally wouldn't have. Plenty of that is due to the contributions of my producer as well.

WK: Your bands were quite popular in the mid-90s. With the benefit of hindsight, do you ever regret not signing to a major record label?

BW: Nobody ever asked. Epic Records called once asking about the Riverdales but I'd just gotten off a long tour and I was very annoyed that they called my home number instead of my business line so I called back and told them to fuck off and not to bother me again. Neither band would've done well on a major. I didn't have the temperament. And I don't think the average person listening to the radio would like my music. Plus I had gotten sick of touring by 1993. I toured a lot with the Riverdales in 1995 but I was totally burned out by the time that ended. I wouldn't have been willing to do all the work necessary to promote a release. But there was no way we were ever going to have Green Day type success no matter what. I think we did as well as we could've given the situation. We made good money and didn't find ourselves having to make a lot of the difficult choices that a more popular band has to make. If I thought we ever could've really hit it big I'd be very regretful because I would love the money! But I really don't think that was in the cards for us. At the time I loved being in the situation I was in and I had no desire to trade it in for a shot at bigger success. These days I'd be more likely to try for something bigger, but it's all theoretical at this point.

WK: Have you been working on new songs since These Ones Are Bitter? You've said in the recent past you've been working on a follow up. Have you got a rough timeline of when it might be made and available?

BW: I don't know what's going to happen or when. I have 40-50 songs written, and over a hundred that are partially written. I'm waiting to see if it's going to be feasible to work with Mike and Chris again anytime soon. It took longer than expected to make the new Rejects album so I don't know if they're going to have any time before hitting the road for God only knows how many years to promote their new record. I may do some stuff with Justin Perkins as well at some point. But right now I am concentrating on shows.

WK: What about songs you wrote and never used? Have you got stores of old songs that never made it onto record you might wish to use somewhere down the line?

BW: Like I said, I have tons of songs, both written and partially written. The partially written stuff dates back to 93, though most of the older stuff isn't too hot. The problem is there's no real money in records anymore since everybody's stealing music online. I can't afford to record like I used to. Releasing a record a year used to be easy because they were making good money. These days it's a lot harder. Even taking into consideration that I'm not spending anywhere near as much on studio time because of digital recording, you still have to pay the engineer and even if you don't record in a studio you have to rent good mics. And since I don't have a manager or anything I have to coordinate everything myself and it ends up being a tremendous amount of work for relatively little money. I think it would be a radically different situation if people weren't stealing my music online but as it is, it's pretty demoralizing to bust your ass on something and pour money into it only to have people rip it off. It's hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for rushing back to do it again real soon.

WK: These Ones Are Bitter was an mp3-only album. In the nine months or so since its release, has it been as lucrative for you as your past albums?

BW: Yeah, although you have to remember that it's my own label so I'm paying myself a higher royalty rate than I'd normally receive. I've made way more than I made, for instance, on the prior record I did - Phase 3 by the Riverdales. But that was poorly distributed and in fact the distributor never paid up on the last $5,000 he owed us. But yeah, TOAB exceeded my expectations. I had goals I wanted to reach at 6, 9 and 12 months and I reached all of them. But it's nowhere near what I was doing before the mp3 thing hit.

WK: Is there anything outside the world of music you'd like to try your hand at? You've already penned a novel and host a radio show. What about a reality tv series? Own a bar? Your own brand of barbeque sauce?

BW: I would never own a bar. I hate drunks and loud music. Not a chance. Me and Vapid talked about making and branding/marketing hot sauce at one point, just like a fun boutique thing, but I can't take on the work. I'd love to do a reality TV series. Unfortunately nobody's knocking on my door with an offer. WK: What format would your reality tv show be? Have you given it any thought. Maybe you could take a bunch of fey, sensitive pop punk nerds out into the wilderness and teach them survival skills, self-assuredness and how to be real men?

BW: I think Ted Nugent already did that! I have no idea what the show would be about - that's what the producers are for!

These Ones Are Bitter can be purchased here. Or you can listen to his radio show, Weasel Radio, here. I suggest you do both.

Thanks to Ben for being such a good sport, maybe he isn't such an asshole after all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was a great interview. I to spent my formative teenage years listening to Ben's music. I just hope he keeps it up. And I'm still waiting for that 2nd novel Ben.

2:15 PM  

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